Lansing resident Ken Reynolds reflects on his life as a Cubs fan
by Carrie Steinweg
It will be a few months before Chicago Cubs fans see their team take the field again. Following more than a century of heartbreak for their faithful followers, the Cubs finally crawled out of their slump, winning it all in 2016. They made their third consecutive post-season appearance in 2017.
Hopes of a repeat were dashed when the Cubs were defeated by the L.A. Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Although there was disappointment in the post-season outcome, the Cubs had another impressive year and for fans all over the world, the thrill of last year’s World Series victory is still fresh enough to fuel them with optimism going into 2018. One die-hard Lansing Cubs fan shared his story of what the 2016 World Series Championship meant to him.
What would cause a grown man with a family to sit alone in the dark in his car listening to the Cubs clinch the National League Division Series? A combination of a tough work schedule, running out of data and losing his live stream, and a touch of superstition.
Ken Reynolds of Lansing, Illinois, has been a high school baseball coach for 23 years and involved in coaching baseball since his teens—a total of 34 years. Last fall he was doing individual baseball instruction in a far south suburb where he worked with kids after school and on weekends. “I didn’t get to see a lot of the playoff games live,” he said. “Because it’s a baseball facility, they are a little more lenient about peeking at your phone to check the score.”
As his 10:00pm shift ended, Reynolds got in his car and tuned in to the live stream on his phone of the Cubs vs. Giants game being played in San Francisco. It was game four. A loss would bring the team back to the Friendly Confines, but it would mean facing Johnny Cueto, the Dominican-born right-hander who had helped lead the Royals to a World Series win a year earlier. A win would give the division series to the Cubs, bringing the team a step closer to their first World Series appearance in 71 years; the first World Series win in 108 years.
Reynolds started the drive home, listening to the dismal details of the 3-run deficit and glancing over at the screen on his phone from time-to-time, which he had wedged into his dashboard. It wasn’t looking good for the Cubs after the Giants had gained a 5-2 lead in the fifth inning, and it was continuing as they moved into the ninth.
Since there’s a brief delay in the live stream, Reynolds was oblivious to the turn the game had taken in real-time until he got a simple text from his son. It read: “You’re not coming in the house.”
“That’s when I knew something was going on,” he said.
Although he realized that superstition among fans doesn’t alter the outcome of a game, he figured he wasn’t taking any chances. “I’m a 49-year-old man being told that I’m locked out of my house, and I can’t go home, and all I’m thinking is that I’m not disrupting the baseball gods.”
His family has rituals that would fall into the category of “superstitious.” If the team’s doing well when he sits in a certain chair, he’ll sit there again. If he’s wearing something that seems to bring them good luck, he’ll keep wearing it. And sometimes, when the team is on a streak, upsetting anything about the current surroundings is prohibited. Thus, Reynolds’ banishment from home by his son until the game had concluded.
When the live stream caught up to reality, an RBI double by Ben Zobrist followed by a pinch-hit two-run single by Wilson Contreras tied up the game. “It’s getting more real. I can’t go home. I’m driving around and driving around,” he said. He listened as Javy Baez singled to bring in Jason Heyward for the leading run. “We’ve taken the lead at that point and Chapman’s coming in,” Reynolds explains.
As they go in to the bottom of the 9th, he gets a message that he has used up his high-speed data for the month. “I’ve never come close to using my data in a month before, but I’d been streaming games on my drive home. I figure it will just slow down or get a little grainy. It goes out completely. I lose the live feed,” he said. “I’m really torn and wondering what I’m going to do. I’m acting like a 10-year-old kid. I can’t go home. So, I go old school and turn the radio on. I pull into a spot at Lan-Oak Park and listen to the bottom of the 9th on the radio like in the old days.”
We know how that game ended. A 6-5 victory that moved them on to the face the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series and ultimately, the World Series vs. the Cleveland Indians. Reynolds sat in his car beside a dark, empty park with his windows down. He yelled and he celebrated. “I gained a new appreciation for listening to the game and using my imagination and letting Pat Hughes paint the picture for me.”
Then he went home. And spent the next several hours watching the post-game coverage.
There’s never been a time in Reynolds’ life when he hasn’t been a Cubs fan. Although he was born in California, his parents were from Northwest Indiana—not far from Chicago—and were big fans of the northside team.
The Reynolds family moved to Arizona when Ken was a toddler. His father graduated from Arizona State University and became a bank manager. “Back before we had online banking, when the Cubs went to Arizona for spring training, the players would go into the bank to open accounts, and he got to know a lot of them,” he said. “That’s how I got baptized into it.”
It was the 1970s—the era of Don Kessinger, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Randy Hundley, Rick Monday, Milt Pappas. Reynolds had the opportunity to go to a lot of spring training games. “One time when I was 4 or 5, I used to bite my fingernails a lot and my Dad took me to a spring training game and introduced me to Billy Williams. Billy had a cut on his finger and said, ‘This is what happens when you bite your fingernails. I can’t play today!’”
Reynolds didn’t know at the time that his Dad had talked to Billy and set it up. “I didn’t know about that until after my Dad passed away,” said Reynolds. “I never bit my fingernails again after that day.”
A family of fans
Reynolds’ father died at age 35 in 1976 and was buried on his son’s 10th birthday. He died from post-op complications after a non-cancerous brain tumor was removed, something he likely would have survived today. “He was around long enough to get me going as a Cubs fan,” said Reynolds, who cherishes those early memories with his father spent at Hohokam Park, meeting Williams, Glen Beckert, Don Kessinger, and others.
After his father died, his mother moved with their children back to the Chicago area to live closer to family. It was as a young kid playing in Little League that Reynolds met his friend Dan Podgorski, who is one of two families that he now shares season tickets with.
Years later he married Sally Vierk, who came from a family of die-hard Cubs fans. Her father, Robert “Buke” Vierk, was a season ticket holder for four decades. When Ken and Sally had daughter, Cori, and son, Louis, their kids didn’t have a choice—they were automatically third-generation Cubs fans. “It’s a borderline obsession/passion for our family,” said Reynolds. “Living in the south suburbs, it’s not easy getting to Wrigley. It’s not convenient, but I’d always try to make it to half a dozen games a year. I kept with them through the heartbreak of ’84 and ’03 and ’08 and on and on.”
He describes Wrigley Field as his favorite place to go in the entire world. “I’ve always loved being there and having that backdrop as a kid. I remember coming home after school to see the end of an afternoon game with Brickhouse announcing. My allegiance has always been to the north side,” he said. “As corny and cliche as it sounds, being there is therapeutic for me.”
During the 2016 season, the team didn’t have a very good record when Reynolds attended games. It became a running joke that he was going to get a call from the Ricketts family asking him to stay home.
Although he refers to curses and jinxes as “nonsense,” he isn’t above altering his behavior, his seating arrangement, or his wardrobe if there’s the slightest chance it may make a difference. “It’s most likely nonsense, but it is what it is. With the curse, if you get it in your head, it’s hard not to think about it. Like in ’08 they lost two at home and then the whole season was done in 72 hours. That first round of playoffs scares the bejeezus out of me,” he said.
He bought a floppy hat in 2015, vowing to wear it to every game until they won the World Series. In 2016, he was able to retire the hat. He kept it retired through the first half of 2017, but had to break it out for the second half because they struggled so much. Things got better, but not enough to pull off back-to-back World Series championships.
“When you talk about the curse, it’s comical. I’m a believer in the baseball gods. You never talk bad about an opponent. You don’t upset the baseball gods,” he said. “People have that feeling that whatever they wear or do is going to make a difference. It’s not, but they think it does.”
World Series celebrations
When the team finally made it to the World Series, there was no doubt who would be using the family’s first set of season tickets during the series. “One of my goals going in was that if they made it to the World Series, that my father-in-law would go to that game with his daughter. He was like a kid in a candy store. He was shocked I was going to give up my seat,” he said.
Reynolds drove his wife and 83-year-old father-in-law to game three of the World Series. “I was very happy that was able to happen,” he said.
He ended up getting a ticket for game 4 and went with Podgorski, his friend since childhood. “As far as the atmosphere, it was powerful,” he said. “Looking at the old scoreboard and seeing only two teams up there and the rest of it empty, to see that with my own two eyes was so satisfying.”
When the Cubs finally won it all, the two buddies were watching together again. As the ball rested in Rizzo’s glove on that last play, there were bear hugs, cheers, and tears. Then the next several hours were spent watching the highlights over and and over and over again with a few cocktails.
“He’s as much of a die-hard as I am,” said Reynolds. “After the ’08 disaster, we made a pact that if they ever won the World Series, we’d go streaking down his block. As it was getting closer, we didn’t think anyone would want to see that, so his wife bought us red and blue morph suits and we went out in the street and re-enacted a couple plays—one where Ross stumbled, and the last out.” They streamed their celebration on Facebook and got a lot of reaction from family and friends.
More than a game
Baseball is much more than a game to Reynolds. It’s his career. It’s his life. “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t get it. Baseball is special because it’s a daily game. You invest more time if you are a fan. It’s different than being a fan of any other sport.”
In his coaching career he’s been fortunate to work with a lot of young men who were extraordinary players and have gone on to have success in the sport, most notably Curtis Granderson, who attended Lansing’s TF South High School. The Lynwood, Illinois, native went on to play as a starting outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, and New York Mets before playing for his current team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s a three-time All-Star and recipient of the Silver Slugger Award.
Reynolds continues to work with teenage players throughout the year and said that game seven of the 2016 World Series is one of the greatest teaching tools he could have. “I tell parents, ‘If you didn’t tape the game, get a copy of it and sit down and watch it with your kids and watch a couple innings at a time.’” he said. “If you want to teach kids this sport, that’s the game to watch—the emotion, the strategy. It’s a blueprint for how to teach someone about baseball. From a teaching standpoint, the Cubs team and their chemistry was so good. The way that group connected and the way that message was put out there is great for kids.”
That game. That last game. That last inning. That last out. It’s a moment Cubs fans will remember forever.
“For me, it was a reward for all those years of sticking with them. You get frustrated and are not as interested some days, but you never stop being a fan. It was vindication for all the years of support with your time and your money and your faith,” said Reynolds.
That moment was the culmination of a half century of being a fan, of priceless memories with a father lost too young, of seeing the joy through the eyes of his father-in-law and his children, of holding on when it seemed the moment would never arrive.
“I thought about it generationally—for my father-in-law to get to go with his daughter to the first World Series game since 1945 at Wrigley Field. I thought about all the years he kept those tickets. It was the reward for sticking with them to finally be able to wear something that says ‘World Champion’ on it,” said Reynolds. “They win, they lose, and life goes on, but it shows how incredibly emotional fandom can be. It makes you cry and scream and laugh, but it takes you away from your own little world for a little while. It allows you to submerge yourself in another world. It’s a distraction from every day—and if you’re a fan, you get hooked and you’re hooked every day of the week. The investment of time is powerful and you’re so relieved when there’s success at the end of it.”